It may be the fate of contemporary Presidents to be tarred forever by the mistakes of their penultimate months in office. President one day, pariah the next, they shuffle off into a retirement devoted to fishing their achievements, grand or small, out of the sink of opprobrium. Mostly they write books. And, Jerry Ford excepted, sulk.
Jimmy Carter has turned out a few books, and has done his share of sulking. But, just as the presidency didn't change what he valued as a man, retirement hasn't robbed him of what he valued as a President. He is still working, hard, on achieving what eluded him in office. In recent months he has been lobbying key world leaders for their support of an international peace conference to move the Israeli-Arab impasse toward resolution.
Two weeks ago, at his new library in Atlanta, Carter convened a "consultation" at which both antagonists and would-be mediators explored the quagmire. Much of the rhetoric matched the lightning-studded chill of the autumn storm passing through the woods outside. At one point, after rescuing Syria's envoy from the brink of apoplexy, Carter advised the audience not to be discouraged: The public discourse was, he said with a grin, "playing to the balcony"; the constructive encounters were happening behind the scenes, "at breakfast" and "in my office." It was left to the imagination what the match-ups were--perhaps China's ambassador sharing doughnuts with Israel's?--and it will be left to history to tell what actually was accomplished. Not that anyone expected a breakthrough, but, as the three days wound down, it was hard not to hope that a door or two had been opened.